Update: Los Angeles leaders pledge $100 million to fighting homelessness 'emergency'

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Members of the Los Angeles City Council declared homelessness in the city an emergency Tuesday and said they would dedicate $100 million to fixing the crisis.

"We wanted to send a message that we were serious as a council," Council President Herb Wesson said at a news conference Tuesday morning. "We wanted the mayor to know that we had his back."

Mayor Eric Garcetti joined Wesson and six other councilmembers in introducing the $100 million proposal. If approved by the full council, the first allocation of funds would come in January and promote shelters and permanent housing.

The initiative comes as the city faces cresting criticism for failing to contain the growing numbers of homeless Angelenos — more than 25,000, according to a count conducted in January.  The numbers of homeless rose by 12 percent over the last two years.

Homeless advocates have blasted city leaders for their tactics to deal with homeless people, like passing laws that make it easier for the city to clear their encampments from sidewalks.

Pete White, who co-leads the Los Angeles Community Action Network, said he’s skeptical about the situation improving.  

"I’ve heard these announcements before," White said. "I’m really looking for more substance versus political dog whistles."

The councilmembers' plan is being unveiled as Garcetti works on his own homelessness initiatives. Garcetti on Tuesday called for $13 million in emergency funding:

  • $5 million in rental subsidies for people who only need short-term help — 6 to 9 months — getting off the streets
  • $5.1 million in rental subsidies specifically for veterans who only need short-term housing assistance
  • $1 million to help establish regional centers where homeless people can store their belongings and take showers, do laundry and get help with other services
  • $1 million on technology improvements at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority that will reduce the time staff spend on data entry so they can do more outreach
  • $665,000 to go towards keeping winter shelters open two months longer and, in anticipation of El Niño conditions, allowing them to stay open 24 hours when there’s rain

Councilmember José Huizar, who co-chairs the Committee on Homelessness and Poverty, said his panel is working to deliver a strategic plan to address homelessness by January.

“Whatever recommendations we have in the strategic plan, we will attach $100 million to that,” Huizar said.

If the full council approves the plan, Huizar said members will find the $100 million from savings in this year’s budget or next year’s. He said budget staff also is projecting higher-than-expected revenues for next year.

Later, on KPCC's AirTalk, Garcetti said that the $13 million could quickly house as many as 1,000 homeless people and that the $100 million, along with state funds to help house veterans, could help the city get 10,000 more off the streets in future years.

"These are folks who often just need rapid rehousing to get back on their feet, and for the most chronically homeless — those [that] might have the mental health and substance abuse issues — we're putting them into permanent supportive housing," Garcetti said.

Garcetti told KPCC the money would be well spent preventing the kind of problems that drain the city budget later, either in law enforcement or medical costs.

"I mean, we spend as much as $100 million on homelessness right now reacting to it, $80 million, for instance, just in the policing costs alone. It's been very pennywise pound foolish," he said. 

Around City Hall, reminders of past policy failures

At the press conference earlier, Garcetti said that the homeless near L.A. City Hall symbolized the severity of L.A.'s homelessness crisis, saying that the city has pushed the problem "from neighborhood to neighborhood" for too long.

Councilmember Gil Cedillo introduced a motion to declare a state of emergency on homelessness. He said one of the most important fixes was creating affordable housing.

"We're going to build the housing to match each and every tent on the streets today,"  Cedillo said.

Councilmember Mike Bonin, who co-authored that motion with Cedillo, said that two homeless people have died on the steps of his Westchester field office in recent months. He said that L.A.'s default homelessness policy of "sidewalks first" can't go on.

"That leads people to die, and that leads people to fall deeper into mental illness," Bonin said of the policy.

There are up to 5,000 homeless people living on Skid Row, Huizar said.

"The human suffering that occurs on Skid Row is astonishing — it will literally take your breath away. That kind of suffering, that kind of desperation, should not be happening in the city of Los Angeles, but it is. It’s a humanitarian crisis and a moral shame," Huizar said.

Declaring a state of emergency on homelessness sends a clear message, Huizar said, "that we are serious about addressing homelessness, that we are recognizing that it has reached a critical breaking point, that the sea of despair that we witness on the streets of Los Angeles each and every day must end and it begins with all of us here today."

Those on Skid Row are just a small percentage of L.A.'s homeless population, Huizar added, saying that 85 percent of the city's homeless live outside Skid Row.

"For too long, our strategies have been dictated by the latest lawsuit. For too long, we’ve had a containment policy. Out of sight, out of mind," Huizar said. "This approach to homelessness has failed. We can’t ignore the problem, and we can’t arrest our way out of it."

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Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who-chairs the homelessness panel, said that, no matter how "irritating" they can be, officials need homeless activists to continue to pressure city leaders to address the problem.

Garcetti and the council's joint plans are the latest salvo in the city's show of action on homelessness. The council created its Committee on Homelessness and Poverty this summer.

Garcetti had also promised to end veteran homelessness by the end of the year. But late last month, he said he would miss that target, citing a rise in homelessness.

This story has been updated.

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